In reading my way through Russian history, alternating fiction with nonfiction, I’ve finally gotten around to a fat paperback I’ve had for a couple of decades, Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (Russian text online here). For some reason I hadn’t been very interested in reading it; I knew it had caused a sensation when it came out, but I had the idea that it wasn’t sufficiently “literary” for me. Well, it’s true that Rybakov is no Nabokov, nor does he try to be; his model is War and Peace, and while he’s not Tolstoy either, he’s a great storyteller, and his panorama of Soviet life in 1933-34, ranging from Stalin (who is portrayed as intimately and convincingly as Lenin is in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914) through various levels of functionaries down to “little people” enduring interrogations and exile in Siberia (and their relatives trying to find out where they’ve gone and get letters and parcels to them), is brilliantly done (and presents a loving portrait of the Arbat district of Moscow, where the author himself grew up). By the time I was a few chapters in I was totally gripped; it’s a good thing I had no pressing work, because I would have neglected it, and it’s also a good thing I ordered the second volume of the trilogy and got it in record time, because the first one ends on a cliffhanger. In this post I said “I would tell anyone interested in Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the classic factual account, and Serge’s novel [The Case of Comrade Tulayev], which will make you feel what it was like”; I can now add Rybakov to my recommendations. The translation is quite good, with a few inevitable bloopers: on page 31 “I worked in a factory in Frunze [now Bishkek]” should be “I worked in the Frunze Factory [in Moscow, as is made clear a few pages later],” and on page 364 “in the nearby side streets of the Zaryad, by the town houses on Glebov Street” should read “in the nearby side streets of Zaryadye, by the Glebov Townhouse” [the latter being a famous inn, the Glebovskoye Podvorye (Глебовское подворье), the center of Jewish life in downtown Moscow; there was no Glebov Street there]. (On page 391 a brief discussion of Siberian dialect words is omitted, but I can’t really find fault with that.) Here, from pages 440-41, is an example of the kind of eye-opening exposition that makes the novel so valuable:
“…There’s sabotage everywhere, sabotage of tractors, combines, threshing machines, binders — sabotage everywhere. Is it really true? Are they really breaking everything on purpose? Who’s causing the damage? The kolkhozniks? Why should they? It turns out there’s no other answer for it: for hundreds of years our peasants have known only one piece of machinery, and that was the ax. Now we’ve put them to work on tractors and combine harvesters; we’ve given them trucks to drive, and they break them because they don’t understand them, because they are not trained, because they are ignorant in the technological and every other sense. So what can we do? Wait until the countryside becomes technically literate and overcomes its ancient backwardness? Wait until the peasants change the character it has taken them centuries to form? And meanwhile should we let them break the machinery and let them learn on it that way? We cannot condemn our machinery to demolition and destruction; it has cost us too much blood to get it. Nor can we wait — the capitalist countries will strangle us. We’ve only one method, it’s a difficult one, but it’s the only one, and that’s fear. Fear embodied in the single word wrecker. You damaged a tractor, it means you’re a wrecker, you get ten years. For a mowing machine or binder it’s also ten years. So now the peasant begins to think, he scratches his head, he starts to take care of his tractor, he gives a bottle to someone who may know just a fraction about machinery — show me, help me, save me. A few days ago I was strolling along the riverbank and I noticed a kid sitting in his motorboat and he’s crying: ‘I pulled the string, something broke, the motor won’t start, I’ll get five years for it.’ It was a very simple, primitive motor. I opened the lid and saw that a small lever had come loose, so I tightened it up and the motor started. But that boy would have been sentenced for damaging the motor, for sabotaging the plan for fish supply or something like that. That’s how they do things in the courts. And there’s no other way: we’re saving the machinery, saving our industry, saving our country and its future. Why don’t they do this in the West? I’ll tell you why. We manufactured our first tractor in nineteen thirty, but in the West they made their first one in eighteen thirty, a full hundred years before us. They’ve got generations of experience; there the tractor is private property and the owner looks after it. Here, property belongs to the state, so it has to be looked after by state methods.”
One thing I’ve always wondered about is how intelligent people who were part of the system of terror justified it to themselves, and this explanation, put in the mouth of a thoughtful NKVD officer, is very convincing; I’m sure people said more or less exactly that many times.
And now I’m off to read the sequel, Fear!